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JaeLynn Williams: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you”

Something I am really passionate about is making air medical services more accessible to patients all over the country. We have bases in almost every state, and we have worked hard to go in-network with insurance companies so that the people we serve do not get caught in the middle of the billing process. When […]

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Something I am really passionate about is making air medical services more accessible to patients all over the country. We have bases in almost every state, and we have worked hard to go in-network with insurance companies so that the people we serve do not get caught in the middle of the billing process. When you are recovering from a traumatic injury or illness, the last thing you want to do is get stuck navigating the financial side of healthcare.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing JaeLynn Williams. JaeLynn Williams was named CEO of Air Methods in January of 2020, after serving as the company’s executive vice president of sales and marketing for about two years. As the leader of one of the country’s largest air medical service providers, she has spearheaded a variety of initiatives aimed at revamping and improving the industry. A key objective has been bringing Air Methods services in-network with insurance plans throughout the U.S. As Air Methods’ EVP of sales and marketing, JaeLynn was responsible for creating value for customers while driving growth in the two healthcare markets the company serves: pre-hospital/EMS and hospital systems.

JaeLynn’s background has allowed her to combine a unique mix of leadership attributes, operational experiences, technical breadth, and exposure to different business models. Prior to joining Air Methods, she was chief commercial and marketing officer for GE Healthcare Digital, a 1.6 billion dollars business with more than 2,500 employees and operations in Canada, Europe, China, Asia/Pacific, Middle East, and Latin America. She also served as vice president and general manager of 3M Health Information Systems, a business of 3M Company, where she was responsible for the overall management of the division and worldwide growth of a broad portfolio of intelligent software and consulting services to hospitals and health systems, commercial payers, and federal and state agencies.

JaeLynn has also contributed to various industry publications as a thought leader, with features in Bloomberg Law, Managed Healthcare Executive and the Denver Business Journal, and on NPR’s Morning Edition news program, among others.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I have taken a bit of an unconventional path to get to this point in my career. I graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English, and because finances were tight with student loans to pay, I took a job as a technical writer out of college. So, my introduction to the business world was as an entry-level Marcom employee. I didn’t go to business school; didn’t pursue an MBA. For me, it was diving into the work and taking advantage of the right opportunities as they came along.

A big step for me was joining 3M as a marketing communications manager. I ended up being at the company for 17 years, so a lot of my professional growth took place there. After about five years, I was promoted to a VP position. Then, I made the decision to be trained as a Six Sigma Master Black Belt which was quite a diversion from marketing and a lot of numbers for an English major. This was a turning point for me. I honed my analytical thinking skills, which opened up the door to become the manager of a consulting business within 3M and own my first P&L. After a few years in this role, I became Senior Vice President of Sales, Marketing, and Client Operations. That led to my most exciting and challenging role at 3M: President and General Manager for 3M Health Information Systems, a 760M dollars business within 3M Health Care. In that role, I was responsible for the overall management of the division and worldwide growth of a broad portfolio of intelligent software and consulting services to hospitals and health systems, commercial payers, and federal and state agencies.

All of these opportunities created the next step in my career as Chief Commercial Officer at GE Healthcare Digital, a 1.6B dollars business with more than 2,500 employees and operations in Canada, Europe, China, Asia/Pacific, Middle East, and Latin America. In this role, I had the opportunity to lead the global commercial strategy for marketing, sales, service, and delivery operations.

When I was approached about joining Air Methods, I was intrigued because it was an opportunity to take all that I had learned about business and apply it to a complex industry where healthcare and aviation converged with a completely different business model — not to mention owned by private equity instead of shareholders. The challenge was exhilarating and a little scary. I took the leap and joined Air Methods in 2018 as Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing and worked with my team to revitalize the company’s sales and marketing functions. I instituted customer-centric improvements and developed management operating systems and metrics. Then, this past January, I was honored to be named the company’s CEO.

My guiding principles throughout my career have been curiosity, a willingness to take measured risks, and a drive to work both smart and hard. I think my 28-year career shows that there is not a single way to grow professionally and find success. You can take a variety of routes to get to where you want to go. The most important thing is to be strategic and grab opportunities as they present themselves — often they show up as the tough ones, the broken ones.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I have certainly assumed leadership of Air Methods at an interesting time. When I was named CEO, COVID-19 was just starting to get international attention among healthcare entities, governments, and the media. This global challenge has shaped the direction of the company, and my decision-making, in countless ways.

The pandemic has affected all of us at Air Methods — as it has everywhere — on a very visceral and personal level. It has amplified our core values.

Our flight crews — the nurses, paramedics, and pilots — are on the frontlines of this crisis every day. They transport COVID patients and provide the best pre-hospital care possible. What has really been amazing is that, across the board, we have seen almost zero pushback about doing this very difficult work in extremely challenging conditions. These crews are putting on full personal protective equipment (PPE) for every single flight. Our bases are all over the country. In some places, at the height of summer, the temperature has hovered around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. And they do it because it is the essence of who they are.

COVID has stripped off the veneer. You are left with what drives you and what you care about. It has been incredible to see the humanity our teams embody. The challenges and the stress are very high, and leading has been complex in ways that I could not have prepared for. But it helps when you are inspired by the people around you and have the support of a superb executive leadership team.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Back in April, we partnered with North American Partners in Anesthesia to provide ventilators to the Northwell Health network in Long Island, NY. The person at our warehouse who was coordinating the delivery was named Tom Grace. I misread his name in an email and, for a week, I was calling him “Grace” in all of our communication — with a large group of people copied to our emails. Finally, I realized on my own that his name was Tom, and he was not a woman named Grace. Luckily, he had a good sense of humor about it when I reached out to him to apologize for the mistake. I ended up reminding him of the song, “A Boy Named Sue,” by Johnny Cash.

There was certainly a lesson in there: Sometimes, as a CEO, people are much less inclined to correct you. It has heightened my awareness of how information might be filtered before it gets to me. You have to make sure people realize that you are human too and can make a silly mistake. And it is okay to say it.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

I’m drawn to the idea that you can create something and have an impact on the world around you. You can solve big problems and improve the way things are done. You also have the opportunity to create a workplace where people feel valued and appreciated.

My dad worked in a pharmaceutical warehouse his entire life. We didn’t have a lot of money and, growing up, it was really apparent when he was stressed out about his job, etc. Seeing how his work affected him has made me sensitive to how all our employees at Air Methods feel about their jobs. It’s very important that I create a good workplace environment. And I certainly don’t do that alone. I thoroughly enjoy being a part of a team that collaborates to make decisions that can impact people in positive ways.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

A function of being CEO is that you must be the most engaged person in any room. It’s a challenge to identify goals and pain points and risks and make sure initiatives are executed to ensure success. And people are the most important part of that equation. You have to take the vision, the ideas, and the goals of the company, and you have to evangelize those and convert and encourage people to buy-in. To do that you also need to be good at reading people so that you surround yourself with a team that helps you do what is needed to move the company in the right direction.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Honestly, I really love the fact that logistics are worked out for me when it comes to things like travel and schedules and meetings. Having that part of my life sort of laid out allows me to maintain focus on the challenges and hard decisions.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

I really like to think out loud in order to process information and make decisions and I have learned that you have to be careful doing that as a CEO. Sometimes I can simply be working something out in my head by talking about it and someone in the room will hear me and misunderstand it as a directive. Then they’ll come back and say, “I got started on X,” and I have to explain that process. You have to be very careful about what you say because it can be easily misconstrued and lead in a direction you didn’t intend.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

A big one is that people think CEOs have no boss and have limitless power. That’s just not true. Executives have a board of directors and investors to answer to. Everyone has a boss in some form. Everyone is held accountable by someone else.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

You can definitely find yourself in the middle of a boys’ club and some might have an “old school” way of perceiving a woman with power. They might treat you differently or talk about things in a different way. This can make networking incredibly difficult and, of course, networking is crucial to success. At the same time, it’s important that you don’t let those types of obstacles impact you as a female leader. You can’t be hindered by the actions of others.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

This is a tough question because I was on the executive team at Air Methods before I was promoted to CEO. I wasn’t tracked down by a search committee and brought in from the outside. So, there weren’t any surprises. I had a handle on the business and the processes, so it was — luckily — pretty seamless.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

Being an executive requires a high level of commitment. You have to have a plan.

I think back to an exercise I did with the CEO of 3M during my time there, who mentored a small group of six people that included myself. He had me draw an x-y axis and, at the top right corner of the quadrant, he told me to write where I wanted to ultimately end up in my career, then list the skills and experience required to get there. It helped me figure out what I needed from each stop I made in my career, and how long to stay in each role. It all comes down to your plan. What is the end game? What skills and capabilities do you need? I was at 3M for a long time and then I realized that I had to move on and do something else because I needed that breadth of experience in a totally different environment. That led me to GE.

You also have to identify your strengths and play to them. Different companies have different needs. Some need an operator, some need a financial guru, and on and on. You have to embrace the things you’re good at while also filling in the gaps and taking on challenges that will help you develop the areas in which you are not as strong.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

You need to understand your market, your customers, and your team. You really need to gather information and listen. I have found that it is invaluable to talk directly to your employees at every level. You learn so much more and get to the root of issues much faster. Communication is key. You have to confidently set the direction of the company and explain it clearly. The more accessible you are to your employees, the more you can learn from them. People will seize the opportunity to talk to their company’s leader and affect change. You can understand your business so much better when you take this approach.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Jon Lindekugel, who was President of the Health Information Systems division at 3M, taught me about the inner workings of 3M — how to assess different levels and executives and navigate the system. He purposely gave me challenging assignments that stressed me but also gave me the limelight. We worked together on acquisitions that had to be pitched to 3M’s executive team. He was the owner of these projects, but he let me run with the program and make some of the pitch. I know this was a big part of what ultimately got me the president’s role at the company. Jon clearly stepped aside and put me in a place where I could own my work.

Another key lesson he taught me was the importance of networking. He really taught me that I need to attend a variety of events, and he invited me to a lot of them. You have to be skilled as both an internal and external networker. Jon really let me have the platform to interface with the next level of executives.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Something I am really passionate about is making air medical services more accessible to patients all over the country. We have bases in almost every state, and we have worked hard to go in-network with insurance companies so that the people we serve do not get caught in the middle of the billing process. When you are recovering from a traumatic injury or illness, the last thing you want to do is get stuck navigating the financial side of healthcare.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Give me a few years and the list will probably get longer because I may not know what I don’t know yet, but here are a few lessons learned so far. First, I wish someone had told me more about how to interact with your Board, the governance structure, and how to leverage the relationships for the good of the company. While there have been no big hiccups here, I have gotten a few gentle reminders about what should be shared with the board and when from former board members.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I go back to leading a revolutionary approach to how air medical services are provided by going in-network with insurance whenever possible and making sure Medicare payments cover the full cost. People are sometimes reluctant to use air medical services because they aren’t sure they are covered.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”— Mother Teresa.

I am drawn to the idea that one gesture, one effort, can change someone. I have tried to apply it to my life by mentoring others the way I have been throughout my career. The quote also certainly applies to Air Methods’ goal of continuing to develop an air medical company that saves the lives of the people in their time of greatest need.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Bob Iger, Executive Chairman of the Walt Disney Company. He is absolutely brilliant. He revolutionized Disney and the entire entertainment industry. He realized before anyone that the future of Disney was content. He bought Marvel, Pixar, the Star Wars franchise, and he put it all on a streaming service. His vision and strategy have been amazing. And he grew up “rank and file,” didn’t have anything handed to him, and he led a monumental transformation of Disney from theme parks and merchandise into a digital content juggernaut.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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